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Iranian American is twice victimized

One of four detained in Iran, Ali Shakeri gets little support because he's not a hard-liner.

June 22, 2007|Muhammad Sahimi | MUHAMMAD SAHIMI is a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at USC.

THREE OF THE FOUR Iranian Americans who have been detained in recent months in Iran -- Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant to the World Bank and the Open Society Institute; and Parnaz Azima, a reporter for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda -- have received support for their freedom from powerful organizations and people in the United States and elsewhere.

In contrast, my friend Ali Shakeri, a businessman and political activist in Southern California's Iranian community who works with the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at UC Irvine, is less well known and has fewer powerful allies. As a result, he is languishing in Tehran's Evin prison with little support except from his family, friends and the small UC Irvine program.

One problem for Shakeri is that he does not have the outspoken support of his own community here in the L.A. area. Why is this? Because, even though Shakeri has long been a supporter of the reformist/democratic movement in Iran, he also has been an outspoken foe of the U.S. sanctions and military attacks against Iran, and he opposes U.S. intervention in Iran's domestic affairs (just as he opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq).

Instead, he has spoken out in favor of negotiations between the United States and Iran. Shakeri believes firmly that democracy must come to Iran, but he sees it as a process that must evolve and that must be carried out by the Iranians living in Iran.

Unfortunately, this has made him unacceptable to the radical anti-regime Iranians who monopolize the discussion in Southern California's Iranian American community. And it has made it harder to get out the message that a good man is being held or to mobilize support to have him released.

Our community -- much of it centered in Beverly Hills, Orange County and the Valley -- numbers a few hundred thousand and includes many highly educated professionals. Shakeri, for instance, was born in Iran, lives with his wife in Lake Forest and owns a mortgage company. He has two adult sons who both graduated from UCI.

Politically, the Southern California Iranian community is divided into two groups. One -- a large majority, in my opinion -- supports what people like Shakeri have been advocating. It does not, however, have access to means of mass communications. Its views are not heard publicly, except through small gatherings, formal and informal meetings and academic discussions. It does not have lobbyists in Washington. In essence, this group is "silent." It has greeted the detention of Shakeri and others with much sadness and concern.

The second group -- a small but highly vocal minority -- is made up mostly of Iranian monarchists who want to bring back the dynasty of the last shah of Iran. This group resembles the anti-Fidel Castro Cuban community in Florida. It has more money than the first group and therefore controls the means of mass communications in the community -- radio and satellite TV -- which it uses to broadcast Persian programs into Iran. This group opposes any rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran and, directly or indirectly, supports military attacks against Iran. It has been indifferent to Shakeri's detention.

This group has little or no support within Iran (or among Iranian Americans in the U.S., where polls of emigres show that the vast majority support negotiations over military action). But it has seen its political influence grow because it is supported by neoconservatives who have been acting as the group's lobbyists in Washington.

In February, when Shakeri and a group of Iranian democrats held a symposium at UC Irvine on U.S.-Iran relations, the minority, using its satellite TV Persian programs, attacked Shakeri and the others and called them "lobbyists" for the Islamic Republic because they wouldn't support more militant measures.

It's hard to know where to turn for help these days. President Bush's policy of providing funds to "help" democracy in Iran has backfired, and Iran's hard-liners have harassed, arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians as a result. Meanwhile, as a result of the war in Iraq and what has happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the U.S. has lost the high moral ground to condemn the Iranian hard-liners and demand the release of political prisoners.

Now, Shakeri and those like him have become trapped in the diplomatic game of chicken between the hard-liners in Iran and the hard-liners in the U.S.

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